James McWilliams wrote an interesting but disappointing piece on exercise addiction last week. The piece shows how engrossing—and potentially damaging—the sport of running can be:
Potentially addicted runners will cheat family time to run, sneak in runs without telling people, design vacations around exercise opportunities, will (if injured) count the days since their last run like an alcoholic counts the days since his last drink, and forgo sex to run (we often joke that nobody spends a Saturday morning running 20 miles because they have a great sex life). It seems certain that, if these symptoms are in any way common, running addiction will become an official disorder in due time.
Yet, in conclusion, McWilliams decides that perhaps these obsessed runners aren’t wrong, or even disordered—rather, they’re in tune with the physicality enjoyed by “pre-industrial people,” our ancestors who would not have been as inactive as modern Americans. “What if the real addicts are those who seek to be sedentary,” he asks, “While the crazed athletes are the ones who are seeking the deeper wisdom and capacity of the human body?”
McWilliams has a point here. American’s desk-bound, inert lives are rather abnormal and harmful to the human body. New research shows that commuting alone can promote higher cholesterol, depression, anxiety, back pain, and sleep discomfort (among other symptoms). Also, as a runner, I can understand the benefits he describes: the feeling of being “at ease with the world,” the sense of accomplishment and renewed purpose with each mile.
But at the same time, the sort of exercise McWilliams advocates for—the constant 10-plus mile runs, sacrifice of time, family, and health—does not seem to foster true excellence. At least, it would not stand up to Aristotle’s concept of virtue, which functions as a mean between excess and defect. Aristotelian virtue does not consist in obsession to the point of bodily harm—he said a warrior who purposefully put himself in harm’s way was not courageous, but careless: he has fallen into the “excess” side of the equation, thus falling short of true virtue. Similarly, McWilliam’s crazed runner falls too much into excess to be truly virtuous.
Yet McWilliam’s runner is no stranger to us, whether we be runners or no. Most modern Americans feel compelled to develop an expertise—be it a career, hobby, or sport. The “specialist” or “expert” always receives greatest respect, while those who “dabble” in various trades or interests are less likely to garner acclaim. Indeed, in education, fields that teach breadth over depth are seeing less students and less interest. Take the humanities, or philosophy: as philosopher professor Rebecca Newberger Goldstein told the Atlantic, interest in philosophy has declined as students “want to get good jobs and get rich fast.” Money and renown goes to the specialists, not to the holistic scholars.
This isn’t meant to denigrate experts, professional athletes, and the like—most careers require a good depth of knowledge in a given subject. But it is important to consider whether we are practicing virtue in our trade, and whether we ought to “branch out” in order to become more healthy and well-rounded human beings. Perhaps the politician should pick up art (like Winston Churchill), the “foodie” should study literature, the economist should take dancing lessons. It isn’t that specialization is bad, so much as that specialization can often lead to obsession—and obsession leads to personal and societal disorder.
St. Augustine called such obsession a “disordered love.” The concept springs from his beautiful Confessions: disordered love seeks ultimate happiness in temporal, earthly objects or pursuits, “an action which engenders all kinds of pathologies in human behavior,” writes David K. Naugle.
“For wherever the soul of man may turn, unless it turns to you [God], it clasps sorrow to itself,” wrote Augustine. “Even though it clings to things of beauty, if their beauty is outside God and outside the soul, it only clings to sorrow.”
Running can be a thing of beauty. Waking early and jogging to a measured cadence, watching the sun illumine a dark sky, etching new trails in the soft earth—it’s an exhilarating, delightful sport. But if it’s all we cling to, we will ultimately become disillusioned, disordered, and unhappy—just as with any realm of love and interest. Much as I enjoy running, I never want this “thing of beauty” to become a disordered love.